growing older

IMG_0019So the evidence is mounting….I’m getting older.

Recently I was in the market for a car, and thought long and hard about what kind of car I could fit into my budget, what the family needs where, and what I “really” wanted. For a while at the top of my list was a Subaru WRX.  It’s been a car I’ve hankered after for years really, and though I couldn’t afford anything too recent, I could just about have worked my way into a ten year old model. As a firmly committed motoring enthusiast (to use a polite phrase!) the temptation was real. I could imagine myself dropping the kids to school, then heading for the mountains to unleash.  Serious fun lay ahead.

The choice in the end? A three year old Hyundai i30 hatch. Practical, nice, good condition, reliable, comfortable. Hyundai have come a long way and the i30 is a genuinely good small car……and I’m just about over the shame of driving a car I swore I’d never drive….but what happened to my WRX?

The thing is, much as I still love speed, and the idea of a truly capable car appeals, I’ve also started to figure out that just maybe there is more to life than going flat out everywhere.

Now in my early 40’s I find myself cruising in traffic, and laughing as a 19 year old races past, weaving in and out and gaining a few metres here and there. And as I laugh I think…sure, you’ll beat me to the destination by a few minutes, but does it really matter?

I’m definitely getting old……or maybe it’s five years in Tasmania that has relaxed me.

There are other signs too, reflexes that aren’t what they once were, a few wrinkles and a lot less hair (and disturbingly hair starting to grow in strange places…what’s with hairy ears?). Of course there are also some positives , I’ve started coping a little better with early morning starts after years of being sure and certain there was no such thing as 6.00 AM, and maybe (just maybe) there’s a little wisdom that comes from mounting levels of life experience – from all that has gone before, both good and bad.

Older, I tell you.

One of the popular stories about getting old is that we become set in our ways, that change becomes hard as the habits of a lifetime are ingrained, and the ability to break free from those habits into different forms of behaviour, or different forms of thinking just isn’t there.

Sure there are the kinds of changes I’ve mentioned, but in the main they’re are seen as inevitable and just part of the aging process.  The kinds of change that require radical shifts, they get harder and harder as we grow older.

Or so they say.

My own experience has been a mixed bag, with a pretty significant lifestyle change since I staggered out the front door 18 months ago and started exercising physically.  That kind of change seems pretty common among my peers as we fight off the oncoming ravages of middle age, and try to hold onto the energy and vitality of youth. It’s a fight worth fighting, and maybe I have the willpower now to do what I couldn’t 5 or 10 years ago….but it can’t really be classified as a whole new way of being, as the kind of radical shift in direction that comes more easily in our early adult years.

It kind of relates, at least in my mind to the notion that children develop and learn fastest in their early years, when the brain is developing and ways of interacting with the world are so fluid and changeable. In those years we cope with change relatively easily and are formed and reformed, shaped and re-shaped over and over as we learn and grow.

All that’s very interesting to me as I work within a church that’s rapidly reaching middle age. The Uniting Church was born in June 1977 after a long labour period, so it’s just about to turn 36 years old.  It’s in its prime in terms of age of course, but starting to reach that point I’ve noticed in recent times, where so often we can be tempted to settle into our own well practised habits, into the middle years of raising family, progressing in career, and slowing down.

So is the Church reaching middle age like me? Ready to trade in the dreams of a sports car for a practical family hatch?

There are a whole lot of people working hard around the church (nationally, as well as in local congregations and faith communities all over the place) to ensure that we don’t settle too easily into middle age. Conversations are happening everywhere, every day about how to bring transformation to an institution that is maybe just a little too settled, maybe showing signs of being a little too ready to slide into peaceful retirement.

If I’m honest, the answers aren’t obvious, and aren’t easy to come by.

But there are, I think, a few clues to successfully navigating middle age – either for a person, or an organisation.

The first is to make a sustained effort to live in the moment. To enjoy what is going on around us and make the most of it.  There are possibilities open to us in middle age that we would never have been capable of recognising or responding too in earlier years. In missional language (or at least my version of it) we have to be constantly asking “what is God up to around us, and how we can join in?”  Personally I have the opportunity right now to try and be a great dad to my kids, and husband to Sheri…those are opportunities I didn’t have at age 17, and couldn’t have managed in the same way even if I did have the chance.

The second is to remember our past. Not to dwell in it, captured by some inaccurate and unfair idea that when were we young life was perfect. I loved my childhood, and there is lots for me to learn by reflecting on formative experiences even a few decades later….but not to spend all day every day wishing I could make it like it once was, living in the outer suburbs of Townsville and exploring the surrounding hills every afternoon until the sun set.  My task is to mine my ancient and recent past for clues on how to live in my present and future (or how not to live them, as the case may be). I can’t help wondering if the same is true for the church.

The third, paradoxically, is not to settle too swiftly, not to go gently into the night (to paraphrase and probably ruin Dylan Thomas’ great poetic work).  At some point we have to get off the couch, lace up the running shoes and fight the physical and emotional ravages of a hard lived life, refusing to surrender to age….even if all the while we suspect it is inevitable. And Thomas doesn’t just say “don’t settle” but is far more forceful:

Do not go gentle into that good night

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

I say this because I’m reminded that one of the wise things that my wonderful dad taught me (there were a few….“if it’s got four wheels it’s meant to be raced” remains my favourite) was to always remember that the rest of my life starts today. At this moment I have no control over what has gone before, what decisions I have made at various times in my life, and what the consequences have been and will be. Those things are done and set. What I can do is make new choices today, tomorrow and every day after that.  What I can do is resource myself for making those choices, learning new skills (even if more slowly than I might have at a younger age), surrounding myself with people ready to make the same journey, mining my past for lessons to be learned and so on.

I’m learning that while I’m growing older, middle age is not to be feared, but to be embraced. Not to be survived but to be enjoyed.  Not to look upon with fatalism and sorrow, but with anticipation and joy for life. And that no matter how old I eventually become, there are always new experiences ahead. The rest of my life starts today. Live here, learn from the past, embrace all that lies ahead.

I hope the same is true for the Uniting Church. Sure there are some challenges in our life. But there are so many new experiences that lie ahead, so many new opportunities to serve, to worship, to know ourselves as sent, loved, cherished, valued. The rest of our life starts today.  And the same will be true tomorrow, and the day after.

Age is, after all, only a state of mind.

And yes, one day I will have that WRX (or maybe a BRZ…who knows). I’ll be one of those old grey guys, pottering along just below the speed limit in my wildly excessive sports car. And even if you think I’m weird, I’ll be loving it!

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